If the renewables industry is a little anxious about the massive pipeline of projects to be built this year and next, the Turnbull Government’s abolishment in April of 457 visas would have sent a chill up its spine.

The reforms, which will be phased in by March 2018, will see the 457 visa replaced with the Temporary Skills Shortage visa – to “prioritise Australian workers”, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection says. (And to appeal to Pauline Hanson’s supporters, some in the media have assumed.)

It’s too early to suggest the changes will put the brakes on the transition to renewables by slowing the deployment of solar and wind plants, but it sometimes pays to be a bit scared.

“Let’s go on a worst-case scenario, where engineers are no longer allowed in,” says Michael Green, director of Sydney-based specialist renewable energy recruiter Bradman Energy & Carbon. “Let’s face it, if you take engineering out of renewables that’s half the sector gone.”

Can have it two ways

The new visa is split into two categories: short term and long term, each with its own list of eligible occupations. The Short-term Skilled Occupations List, for roles up to two years, and will be updated every six months based on advice from the Department of Employment. The Medium and Long-term Strategic Skills List, for up to four years entry, contains occupations assessed as being “of high value to the economy”.

Green says the local market for skilled workers is beginning to thin out.

“Up until now employers in renewables have had the comfort of saying I just want renewables experience, and they get it,” he says. “They’re still saying that, but locally available talent has just about dried up.”

It’s a good time for Australians who ventured overseas to chase jobs when the sector went quiet during Tony Abbott’s reign to return, he says. Renewables workers from around the world who have previous experience in Australia will also be tempted back. “We’re soaking up people like that,” says Green, who recently placed a German technician with more experience clocked up in Europe than during his previous stint down under. “They’ve just gone to where the good work is – we’re attracting those types of applicants now.”

Transferable skills

The next step is to weigh the merits of people with great supporting skills but no experience in renewables. “That’s where we’ll have to go,” he says. Experience in construction is what holds applicants in good stead, he says, and it doesn’t matter whether that was earned in mining, oil or gas.

“I interview people a lot who came from another sector but have built their first wind farm and done it on budget and on time. The clients who have insisted on renewables experience only will be fairly easy to shift into being a bit more open towards the backgrounds of the people they look at.”

What does the change in red tape mean for engineering, procurement and construction companies that are gearing up for a long-hoped-for boom in investment? So far, not much. The list of occupations that allowed entry to Australia under the 457 regime has been cut from 651 to 435 for the Temporary Skills Shortage visa class. Luckily, engineering and electrical skills still make the list.

Welcome to Australia

Green expects international interest in Australian positions from Europe, South America and South Africa. He also recruits in Australia and around the world for positions in Asia, where he opened three years ago. “Asia has proved a real gem,” he says. “I got in at just the right time and the business has been growing ever since.”

It’s easier to get foreign nationals into Asia than into Australia, he says. “Indonesia has just built its first wind farm,” he says. “It’s about to build its second.”

He expects less than 10% of Australian vacancies will be affected if engineers are ever left off the list of eligible skills in the future (on estimates of past client sponsorships of successful applicants). The lists of eligible occupations will be updated every six months, the Department of Immigration says, which will make long-term planning that much more risky.

“We’ve got a lot of people who have been underemployed a long time in this sector, so clients have been soaking that underemployment up,” he says. “We haven’t had to go overseas [to recruit].”

In the short to medium term, Green says it might not be such a big deal if engineers for example are left off the list of eligible occupations. “We’ve got enough engineers with complementary skills [in Australia],” he says. “If you can build some kind of gas-fired plant [for example], you can build a wind farm – all they need to be given is the opportunity.”

The list of eligible occupations can be found here.